IT WOULD HAVE been a shame for Dawn Staley to bolt for Ohio State while construction of her South Carolina womens basketball program is starting to take shape as a national power.
There is no doubting that, after proving it can sustain success through a transitional season, Staley and USC are primed to gain elite status. It is not too far fetched to believe the Gamecocks soon will be knocking on the door of the NCAA tournaments Final Four.
Through five seasons, Dawn Staley has stamped her imprint on the program. Her teams play outstanding defense, limiting opponents to 35 percent shooting and a shade below 50 points per game this past season.
It is the kind of pressure, swarming defense that makes USC competitive in every game, regardless of the opponent. Staley tells anyone who will listen including her team that playing defense is a decision. She decided long ago in her coaching career that her teams would play solid defense.
As a result, USC was able this past season to win 25 games, including 11 of 16 in the SEC, and advance to the NCAA tournament round of 32 despite having major deficiencies on offense. The Gamecocks possessed neither a go-to scorer nor a consistent long-range shooter and converted a crippling 56 percent of their free-throw attempts.
That is a recipe for disaster unless you play stout defense.
Its been our No. 1 priority, to play defense and to rebound, says Staley, whose undersized team also out-rebounded its opponents by nine per game.
Imagine if USC had a scorer, a shooter and adequate size on the front line. Fear not, Staley believes it is all on the way for next season and beyond.
That was certainly, if you want to call it a flaw, we didnt have anybody who we could put the ball in her hands and make a play, Staley says.
USC made 39 percent of its field-goal attempts, including a 25 percent from beyond the 3-point line. As much as defense kept USC in games, when the Gamecocks ran into a team with scoring power, such as Kansas in the NCAA tournament, they could not keep pace.
We had nobody who could stretch the defense out consistently, Staley says.
That was due in large part to an offseason knee injury that sidelined sophomore guard Tina Roy. Despite averaging 11 minutes per game as a freshman in 2011-12, Roy still was second on the team with 32 field goals from long range.
Staley believes Roy, along with returning starters Aleighsa Welch and Tiffany Mitchell, can provide the kind of scoring threats that force opponents to defend the post and the perimeter.
Defending the post will be a concern for USC opponents with the arrival of 6-foot-4 center Alaina Coates of Dutch Fork. Coates gives USC a post presence that has been missing since 6-4 Kelsey Bone bolted for Texas A&M following her freshman season.
Bones departure was a major setback to Staleys building project. USC improved from a 14-15 record with Bone to an 18-15 record the following season without her, but there is no telling how far the talented center could have taken the Gamecocks.
Would Kelsey Bone have helped our basketball team? Staley asks. Youve got to think she would have helped. ... Had she grown in the process with us, theres no doubt that we would have been a better basketball team on the floor. But, growth takes place off the floor as well. I dont take that lightly. I think you have to grow off the floor before you grow on the floor. If youre able to do that, it helps your program.
There is every indication that Coates, a McDonalds All-American, can fill the void left by Bone.
The fruits of our labor have paid off in getting her, Staley says of Coates. Weve been trying for five years. Weve known about her for five years. It took every bit of those five years to land her.
Just like with Bone, it is likely to take time for Coates to transition to the college game. She has immense potential with outstanding hands and feet, and is certain to develop post moves that could make her among the best centers in womens college basketball.
Staley also will be in search of a player to not only run the offense and defense but develop as a team leader, since that is what she expects of a point guard. There also is work to be done to overcome what Staley says became a team psychological obstacle at the free-throw line.
Add it all up and you have a program on the verge of greatness with Staley at the helm.